In DC and Oregon, the ultimate in union-busting: Sudden closure
Workers in front of one of the shut coffee shops in Washington DC. | Coffee shop workers

WASHINGTON—Call it the ultimate in union-busting: If you can’t beat your workers, close up shop, literally the next day after you learn about the union’s organizing drive. That’s what bosses did to two popular cafes in Washington, D.C., and at two Montessori pre-schools in Portland, Ore.

Both groups of workers are going ahead with filing labor law-breaking complaints and in D.C., obtaining a union recognition election on July 10, anyway. The Oregonians are demanding the National Labor Relations Board seek a federal court order to reverse the anti-union closures.

The D.C. Wydown coffee shops’ workers and the Portland Montessori teachers, called guides for the little kids they teach and care for, share some common characteristics. Most are young, female, and many are people of color.

They’re also idealistic, exploited by the corporate class, and underpaid. And, like millions of their colleagues in fast food, adjunct professorships, warehouses, and retailers, are forming grass-roots union movements to gain power on the job.

And their bosses are retaliating, in both cases, in the extreme.

The two Portland Montessori schools closed on less than one day’s notice, on April 8, Mallory Gruben of the Northwest Labor Press reported. While three other Montessori schools in the city hired some of the 34 teachers, called guides because the kids they teach are so young, the most pro-union teachers were left out. The two pre-schools are shut down for three months.

Health and safety at the Tigard preschool, one of the two, pushed the drive at both.

Last summer, a suspected gas leak forced the teachers and the kids out onto the playground for four hours, teacher/guide Elizabeth Appleton told the Labor Press. Some of the children were as young as 18 months old. “We were having to improvise diaper changes outside,” lead guide Chloe Del Donno added. “Families were not called to pick up their children.”

When their schools closed with less than a day’s notice, the teachers/guides were forced to find other work and the parents had to scramble for alternative daycare. Passcodes on the doors were re-programmed so the teachers couldn’t go back to retrieve personal items.

Situation so bad

The situation was so bad and closure was so sudden that International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 5, which seeks to represent the teachers, asked the labor board’s regional office in Seattle to seek a 10(j) federal court injunction against Guidepost A LLC, which owns the two schools.

A 10(j) is the board’s strongest sanction against a labor law-breaking employer. It’s used only when the NLRB’s normal punishments for labor law-breaking are completely inadequate to make harmed workers whole. Normal NLRB remedies are net back pay for harmed workers and ordering the firm to post a we-broke-the-law-but-won’t-do-it-again notice, are inadequate to make the workers whole.

Guidepost in turn is a subsidiary of a California firm. Which illustrates another labor law problem—joint employers–workers in general, face: Who’s ultimately responsible for the labor law-breaking, the corporate headquarters and/or big chain or its local subsidiaries, or both.

The union answer, which the NLRB accepts and the U.S. House’s ruling Republicans reject, is “both.” The Republicans pushed to overturn the NLRB’s new joint employer rule, which made both responsible, through Congress. Democratic President Joe Biden just vetoed their move.

Meanwhile, the NLRB regional office covering D.C. scheduled a union recognition vote at the two coffee shops for July 10. The union working with the workers, the Service Employees’ Southeast Regional Joint Board, is going full steam ahead with organizing, the Metro D.C. Central Labor Council and City Paper report. The workers received fewer than 10 hours notice of the closures.

The Wydown baristas, cooks, and bakers told Axios and the metro D.C. Central Labor Council they average $11 an hour in pay, with few benefits. The D.C. minimum wage is $17 an hour now and will rise by 50 cents on July 1, regardless of an employer’s size. But there are other issues as well, a twitter/X posting from the Wydown Workers United says.

The workers posted a picket line after the closure, and their handmade signs included the one owner’s phone number for customers to call. Supporters set up a GoFundMe account.

“Wydown management has demonstrated a consistent pattern of disregard for the concerns we brought to their attention in recent months. We try our best to maintain a high quality of service, but we are consistently short-staffed and left without the supplies and tools we need to do our jobs.

“Workers at the Apollo location were recently subjected to overt, ongoing verbal abuse at the hands of our general manager. It took weeks for this situation to be acknowledged by ownership, and longer still for them to take action” by “removing the manager.” But other mismanagement lingers.

The workers say bosses have “a lack of urgency in maintaining facilities and equipment,” letting espresso machines break down in midday, allowing clogging drains and sewage flooding the floor, short-stocking the stores, “and growing pest problems. We do not have confidence in leadership to resolve this situation without our intervention.”

The D.C. and Portland closures also put the coffee shop and Montessori school workers among the rising tide of young, underpaid, exploited workers, often women and workers of color. Hundreds of thousands have turned to unions, organizing from the ground up to fight back.

And when it comes to coffee shops, Starbucks Workers United, a Service Employees affiliate, has helped workers at 420 Starbucks shops self-organize and win union recognition elections. Public pressure forced the monster Starbucks chain, which now rivals Walmart and Amazon in its labor law-breaking, to finally start bargaining with them as a group and with Starbucks Workers United. But the two sides are bargaining right now over terms of bargaining, not yet over what the workers want.

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Press Associates
Press Associates

Press Associates Inc. (PAI), is a union news service in Washington D.C. Mark Gruenberg is the editor.